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GARDENING : Butterflies Fancy a Buddleia Shrub Feast


When Macy Lindsay wanted to add colorful shrubs to a sunny, dry location in her Mission Viejo back yard, her decision was easy.

"Buddleia was my first choice because they attract butterflies and also because they're so easy to grow," Lindsay said.

A horticulturist with Hines Nurseries in Irvine, Lindsay is also president of the Orange County Chapter of the California Assn. of Nurserymen.

"I'm originally from the East and missed the sight and smell of lilacs," she said. "Buddleia evoke their memory for me."

Buddleia, commonly called Summer Lilac or Butterfly Bush, are evergreen or deciduous small shrubs or trees. There are more than 70 species of this graceful, fast-growing shrub, but only a few are commercially available.

The most popular is B. davidii, fast-growing to 15 feet. Butterflies, hummingbirds and bees flock to the dense clusters of very fragrant flowers they produce each summer. The flower racemes provide sweet nectar, which lures various species of butterflies.

Varietal names of B. davidii refer to the different flower colors, which are mainly lilac, purple, blue, pink and white. They include the deep-orange Tiger Swallowtails that provide a striking contrast among the lavender, purple, blue or pink flowers.

The flowers can be enjoyed indoors as well as on the shrubs.

"I have good luck with cutting them for indoor bouquets," Lindsay said. "They look lovely when combined with orange flowers like Rudbeckia and last in a vase for up to one week."

Judy Wigand, owner of Judy's Perennials, a specialty nursery in San Marcos, is also an enthusiastic advocate of buddleia in the landscape.

"They're such carefree shrubs, disease and pest-resistant and easy to maintain," she said. "I've never noticed a problem with them."

Most buddleia varieties are fast and tall-growing and usually look best at the back of a perennial border or along a fence or wall. Most prefer full-sun, but will also grow and bloom in part shade.

Because the plants grow tall and lanky, they need yearly pruning.

"All shrubs need trimming once in a while," Wigand said, "and buddleia are no exception. If left untended, they grow rangy, and over time the flower size diminishes."

Most varieties of buddleia flower on new growth and send out their first flush of bloom in late spring. Light pruning and shaping after the first bloom results in a second flush of summer flowers.

A few varieties, such as B. asiatica, bloom later in the year. This very tall shrub is hard to find but worth the search because it produces prolific quantities of highly fragrant white flower racemes in late December, January or February, when little else is blooming. (B. asiatica is available at Buena Creek Nursery in San Marcos.)

Wigand, who has a colorful display garden at her nursery, admits she didn't enjoy the annual pruning of buddleia because the powdery felt on the undersides of the leaves would reduce her to fits of coughing and wheezing. Her husband solved the problem when he offered to do the job himself. He applied a chain saw to the 12-foot shrub and within five minutes reduced it to a knee-high bush.

Now, she recommends the same unorthodox pruning method to her customers, but only for buddleia shrubs that are two or more years old.

"Buddleia can withstand such drastic pruning measures because they grow back so quickly and vigorously," Wigand said.

She also determines the time of flower bloom by pruning time (a technique often practiced by rosarians who time their bloom cycles for rose shows or special garden events).

"I prune in February, and the shrub responds immediately by sending up new growth," she said. "By the end of March, it's powering up and is in total flower April through May."

Wigand encourages the shrub to produce another flower flush in summer by lightly pruning and shaping it after it's finished with the first flower cycle.

Because the buddleia is in the midst of her perennial garden, it receives the same fertilizer as the other plants in February and again in midsummer. (She uses a timed-release granular fertilizer 14-12-14.)

A yellow abutilon is planted in the foreground, with alstroemeria at the base.

Buddleia prefer fast-draining soil and can exist with little water but flower and look fresh with regular watering.

The area where Lindsay planted her buddleia is in a section that isn't irrigated. She hand waters her bushes every seven to 10 days, depending on temperature and rainfall. She doesn't apply any fertilizer.

When not in flower, buddleia is also prized for its light gray-green foliage. A new variety, 'Harlequin,' will be introduced by Monrovia Nursery in the spring. The 12-foot shrub has variegated dark-green foliage with creamy-white margins and red-purple flowers.

As the demand for buddleia has been increasing, hybridizers are responding by developing more compact forms. B. davidii 'Nanho Blue' and 'Nanho Purple' are more restrained growers that reach about 6 feet. B. davidii 'Petite Plum' and 'Petite Indigo' are even more compact, at 3 feet by 3 feet.

B. alternifolia, commonly known as Fountain Butterfly Bush, is a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 12 feet. It produces masses of arching, willow-like branches bearing small dark-green leaves with gray undersides. Small clusters of lilac-purple flowers form on the previous year's growth.

Though not as fragrant as B. davidii, this shrub is also a striking landscape plant and can be trained as a single or multiple-trunked tree.

Although buddleia are often added to landscapes because they attract butterflies, some gardeners like them because of the wildlife they repel. They're shunned by deer and are useful garden plants in deer country.

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